Mar 16, 2012 – 10:14 PM ET | Last Updated: Mar 16, 2012 10:18 PM ET
“We are much more than a kind of postmodern, relativistic reflection of the world’s diversity,” says Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who emphasizes the central role in his immigration reforms of civic literacy, the ideal that every Canadian should understand the country’s basic values, symbols and institutions.
“We French, we English, never lost our civil war / Endure it still, a bloodless civil bore,” he wrote. “No wounded lying about, no Whitman wanted. / It’s only by our lack of ghosts we’re haunted.”
Once a pioneer in a virgin land, by mid-century, Birney’s archetypal Canadian had come to regret his lack of roots. Since then, Canadians have filled this ghostless void with virtues, defining ourselves not by the sorrows and glories of our past, but by the ideals of our present.
For the last half-century, especially since Pierre Trudeau’s introduction of multiple citizenship in 1977, that meant a country open to any and all newcomers, a multicultural land of peacekeepers and humanitarians whose citizenship was a gift freely offered to others, regardless of prior loyalties.
These virtues are not etched in the Canadian Shield, however, and through a long-term strategy that has only just begun, the Conservative government is redefining Canadian citizenship in both subtle and obvious ways, just as their Liberal predecessors did.
By their nature, the Americans will always be free, the British will be loyal, and the French will be French, but Canadians are a work in progress, still becoming rather than being themselves.
“I think most native-born Canadians, frankly, take [citizenship] for granted. Maybe we’re only conscious of our citizenship once or twice a year, on Canada Day or when we go to vote or something,” said Jason Kenney, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. “The truth is that for too long, perhaps because of the Canadian characteristic of always wanting to be nice and never wanting to say no, we looked the other way when significant numbers of foreigners sought to acquire Canadian citizenship even illicitly… All of this indicated to me a cheapening of the value of Canadian citizenship.
‘I think most native-born Canadians, frankly, take [citizenship] for granted’
His efforts to strengthen the value of citizenship — such as tightening the knowledge, language and residency requirements — represent a wholesale rejection of the “insulting” notion, best expressed by the Canadian novelist Yann Martel on accepting the 2002 Booker prize, that Canada is “the greatest hotel on earth,” the kind of place people can pass through at their leisure, claiming citizenship as if it were a room key.
It was a vision of Canadian citizenship that sits so lightly on the shoulders, you can almost forget it is there, and it exploded in unexpected crisis in the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon, when thousands of people holding dual Lebanese and Canadian citizenship were evacuated by Canadian naval vessels, popularizing the epithet “Canadians of convenience.”
Contrary to the hotel metaphor, Mr. Kenney said the Conservative vision is of “a country made up of Canadians who have a deep sense of loyalty toward, and knowledge about Canada. It’s a country characterized by social cohesion and a sense of mutual obligation and civic responsibility. That’s the vision.”
Poet Earle Birney, pictured in 1995, said Canada is mostly unbothered by history.
Critics, however, say this “ideological remaking” of Canada has been done on the fly, in inflammatory and overly political language, that it is out of touch with current trends in global migration of people and capital, and that by expanding temporary worker programs while restricting permanent residency and citizenship, the Tories are cracking down on the most marginal groups, for reasons that are at best economic and at worst simply political.
Daiva Stasiulis, a professor of sociology and an expert in citizenship studies at Carleton University, said the government’s recent targeting of “passport babies” and “birth tourism” shows it is “sadly out of touch with that very important transnational reality,” that people have loyalty to more than one country, and meaningful ties and networks and families and property and interest in more than one country.”
‘I think people come to Canada to be free. You talk to many newcomers, that’s what brought them here’
On citizenship, the move to abandon the rule that any person (except children of foreign diplomats) who is born in Canada is automatically Canadian — known as jus soli, the right of soil, as opposed to the more common jus sanguinis, or right of blood — is the most dramatic of several efforts to bring this Conservative vision of citizenship to reality.
These efforts include rewriting the citizenship test to emphasize the rejection of “barbaric” cultural practices like female genital mutilation, renaming the armed forces to honour the monarchy, hanging the Queen’s portrait in more prominent civic locations, adapting the immigration process to make it more business-friendly and restricting the ability of foreign-born Canadians to pass citizenship to their foreign-born children. In enacting these measures, Mr. Kenney said the government is seeking to recapture the pioneer spirit of the immigrants who historically came to stay and work, such as Clearance Scots, Famine Irish, Sikh lumber workers and Chinese railroad labourers.
Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy, a non-partisan think-tank, said Canada is a place the rest of the world looks on in envy because it embodies certain values, such as freedom from social and economic inequality.
“I think people come to Canada to be free. You talk to many newcomers, that’s what brought them here,” he said.
‘When you grow up with [Canadian values], you don’t grow up with them as an intellectual acquisition’
He acknowledged that native-born Canadians are never told this, just as they are never required to swear loyalty to the Queen or pass a citizenship test.
“When you grow up with [Canadian values], you don’t grow up with them as an intellectual acquisition,” he said. “It’s not that somebody tells you what they are. It is that, when you behave that way, you behave like a Canadian. With newcomers, it’s very important to explain to them, to put it into words.”
One major criticism, as Prof. Stasiulis describes it, is that many of the citizenship changes are surface-level tweaks in the ongoing overhaul of the immigration and refugee system, and that by enacting them, Mr. Kenney “is following the lead of many European countries in becoming more restrictive, exclusionary, targeted and discriminatory.”
Mr. Kenney said the goal is to make the system quick and flexible, where it was once slow and rigid, but in a sharply worded announcement this week, four civil society groups accused the government of pursuing an “un-Canadian” Bill, C-31, that would give broad powers to the minister to reject and deport refugee claimants.
“I think for many of us, ‘Canadian’ signifies compassion, decency, upholding of human rights, and this Bill flies in the face of all that,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of the equality program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“What we take issue with is the government penalizing the men, women and young people who are simply trying to find safety,” she said. “I think the government is trying to persuade Canada that there is something wrong with immigrants. There is a worrying conflation of refugees with criminals.”
In promoting Canadian citizenship to people who are already Canadian, however, there are some peculiarly Canadian problems, none more peculiar than the teaching of history. That is a provincial responsibility, but by partnering with the Historica-Dominion Institute, the government hopes to make its new citizenship guide a key component of every Canadian’s high school education.
‘I think that there is a compelling core narrative to Canadian history and identity’
Prof. Stasiulis cited a new book, Warrior Nation, by Queen’s University history professor Ian McKay, that argues the teaching of history is being militarized by this kind of project, with Canada’s story told primarily through its wars, to the exclusion of its social movements.
Mr. Kenney said the rewritten citizenship guide includes carefully calibrated content, as opposed to “puerile, politically correct version presented in the Liberal government’s study guide, A Look At Canada, which did not have a single sentence on Canadian military history, but had two pages on recycling. That typified the now discredited approach to Canadian citizenship where we would tell people about the Blue Box but not the red poppy.”
He said he has noticed a renewal of interest and a growing discourse on citizenship, and a growing realization of its value, and that it is new Canadians who have been the most enthusiastic about building stronger emotional and intellectual ties to their chosen country.
“In such a diverse country, we need certain touchstones that reinforce social cohesion,” he said. “One of those touchstones has to be a common understanding of the nature of our democratic institutions, habits and traditions, how they developed throughout the course of our history, including our pre-Confederation history, the fundamental values upon which they were based. This is really what we’re trying to get to.”
Sourece: National Post